Johan Neem on the "Individualist Fallacy" of Online Education

I have never met Johann Neem, but I really like his work.  I refer regularly to an essay he wrote a few years ago on Thomas Jefferson’s famous Danbury Letter and I have learned a great deal from his book Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts.

In today’s Inside Higher Ed, Neem argues that online education ignores the role that institutional culture and the face-to-face classroom instruction plays in the way students learn.  He writes:

There has been much talk of the “online revolution” in higher education. While there is a place for online education, some of its boosters anticipate displacing the traditional campus altogether. A close reading of their arguments, however, makes clear that many share what might be called the “individualist fallacy,” both in their understanding of how students learn and how professors teach.

Of course, individualism has a long, noble heritage in American history. From the “age of the self-made man” onward, we have valued those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But, as Warren Buffett has made clear, even the most successful individuals depend heavily on the cultural, economic, legal, political, and social contexts in which they act. This is as true for Buffett as it is for other so-called self-made men as Bill Gates. And it is certainly true for students…

There is a difference between being on a campus with other students and teachers committed to learning and sitting at home. Learning, like religion, is a social experience. Context matters. No matter how much we might learn about God and our obligations from the Web, it is by going to church and being surrounded by other congregants engaged in similar questions, under the guidance of a thoughtful, caring pastor, that we really change. Conversion is social, and so is learning.

Like all adults, students will pursue many activities during their time on campus, but what distinguishes a college is that it embodies ideals distinct from the rest of students’ lives. If we take college seriously, we need people to spend time in such places so that they will leave different than when they entered.

Some argue that large lecture courses make a mockery of the above claims. Admittedly, in a better world, there would be no large lecture courses. Still, this argument misleads for several reasons. First, it generalizes from one kind of course, ignoring the smaller class sizes at community colleges and the upper-division courses in which students interact closely with each other and their professors. Second, it dismisses the energy of being in a classroom, even a large one, with real people when compared to being on our own. Even in large classes, good teachers push their students to think by asking probing questions, modeling curiosity, and adapting to the class’s needs. Finally, it disregards the importance of the broader campus context in which all classes, large and small, take place.

The goal of bringing students to campus for several years is to immerse them in an environment in which learning is the highest value, something online environments, no matter how interactive, cannot simulate. Real learning is hard; it requires students to trust each other and their teachers. In other words, it depends on relationships. This is particularly important for the liberal arts. 

Read the rest here.

3 thoughts on “Johan Neem on the "Individualist Fallacy" of Online Education

  1. Touche!

    I probably won't be a good enough teacher. The brave new world of online teaching will feature a handful of superstar profs and a vast legion of grad student tutorials.

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  2. Sure, social context matters in education. But to say that learning must be social–that individual education is inferior–seems a real stretch given the accomplishments of the self-taught. Abraham Lincoln is the obvious posterchild for autodidacts.

    Indeed, it is arguable that forced socialization slows down the learning process for the exceptionally gifted. This may be a factor in why homeschooled children often outperform children who enroll in either public or private schools even when controlled for parental wealth and education.

    Neems appears to use individualism as an epithet, a handy, just-vague-enough-to-be-useless-and-unquestionable bogeyman.

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